Beathard Works With Experienced Talent

For the first time in four years, the Fighting Illini football team has a full compliment of quarterbacks. Last year, it had to get by with two players while trying to keep a freshman eligible for a redshirt. It limited play calling due to the fear of injury. Now, three quarterbacks could play if needed while a promising freshman learns the ropes.

Illinois assistant coach Kurt Beathard is in his first year as quarterback coach, but he has had plenty of experience at the position. He was a quarterback in college and has coached quarterbacks prior to joining the Illini. He knows what he has in his available talent and how to bring out their best effort.

He also has the likely Illinois career total offense leader at his disposal in senior Juice Williams. And backing him is fourth year junior Eddie McGee, who has played extensively. A quarterback coach likes nothing better than having experience at the position.

"That's huge," Beathard understates. "You can't replace that. So now they're polishing instead of relearning."

Beathard is seeing growth in all his quarterbacks at Camp Rantoul, not only with Williams and McGee but redshirt freshman Jacob Charest and freshman Nathan Scheelhaase as well.

"Our guys are getting better every day. It sounds like a cliche. We've got a heavy install right now, so we've got a lot of things thrown at them. The progression that we're seeing every day, we're getting better.

"The ball's getting out of the hand a little quicker, our run game's coming around, we're starting to see things a lot better. At the end of the day I'm a little bit positive now."

Williams started as a freshman out of necessity, but he lacked the fundamentals to go with his impressive physical skills. Little by little, Williams has molded himself into a quality Big 10 quarterback. Now, Beathard is helping him take the next step.

"Right now, we're just trying to make sure he trusts what he sees, trusts his reads and takes away guessing or thinking. For example, 'I thought I could put it in there.' We go with what we know.

"We fall back and get away from that sometimes. Sometimes they're obvious when it happens. He tells me what he sees and what his thought process is. If he's in the 90-100 percentile, we're in good shape.

"His biggest jumps were from freshman year to sophomore year, and from sophomore year to junior year. Obviously, he's still progressing. We want him walking out of here saying, 'I know this offense better than anybody can know it.' If he does that, his production level goes way up."

McGee has shown significant improvement since the spring. He appears to have finally embraced his responsibilities as a major college quarterback.

"Yeah, there's no doubt. Just in his demeanor on and off the field, I can see that. Like everyone, he's got to concentrate and focus every play. Have that same attention to detail every snap. That's our goal.

"Eddie's an energetic person, and he's passionate. He's studious to the game. He's made a lot of progress since his freshman year too. It's nice to go into meetings and have two guys who get it, understand and see it. And they've been there before. It makes your job as coach a lot easier."

Charest has the arm strength, toughness and intelligence to be an outstanding quarterback some day. But there is much to learn. Fortunately, he can continue to progress as a backup rather than being thrown to the wolves before he is ready as was the case for Williams and McGee.

"Jacob has to make sure he stays in focus. He's getting there. His attention to detail is getting better, let's say it like that."

Freshman Nathan Scheelhaase is a student of the position. He has excellent quickness and an accurate arm. He is showing potential in practice.

"I'm really impressed with Nathan's ability of taking control at quarterback and understanding what he needs to do. He's really processing at this level. He's in the right zone."

Of course, a new guy is looked upon for his potential, while the older guys are judged on their mistakes. But the depth chart will likely continue to show a pecking order based on experience within the offense. Ideally, Beathard hopes each quarterback will continue to compete as that makes them better.

"There's competition every day. We sit there and evaluate every single practice. I'm hoping Jacob will push Eddie, I'm hoping Eddie pushes Juice, and I'm hoping Eddie says 'I'm not gonna let him catch me.' And I want Jacob to say, 'I want to catch whomever.' That's the way the competition should be."

The Illinois offense figures to be potent as there are plenty of talented receivers and running backs. It is up to the quarterback to get the ball in a timely manner to his playmakers according to Beathard.

"The key to offense is having many weapons. We want to keep them off balance every play. We've got the ability to keep people off balance with our weapons and our multiple personnel groups.

"We've got weapons at running back. We've got a guy in the backfield who's an added running back and can throw the heck out of the ball. And then we've got receivers who can stretch the coverage vertically as well as horizontally. The scheme's there, we've just got to start making it an efficient offense. For that to happen, everyone has to be on the same page and play at the highest level."

Beathard works with Offensive Coordinator Mike Schultz in the press box on game day to call plays. It is a true artform to figure out ways of exploiting opposing defenses. But if the coaches can keep a defense off balance, this offense could be fun to operate.

"Obviously it will. Game by game our game plans change. But I think we have enough weapons to do the things we can do. If it comes to a situation where we can't execute something, then we're not gonna try to execute something we're not very good at yet. We're gonna pick out what we're best at."

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